REVIEW: ‘Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ is a Deep And Compelling Story (Switch)

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Art from Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a narrative-driven turn-based strategy role-playing game developed by Intelligent Systems and Koei Tecmo, and published by Nintendo. Players take on the role of Byleth, a mercenary working for his father’s company, when the appearance of three academy students being pursued by bandits changes his world forever.

At the heart of Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a story-driven by choice and character. Every character you get to know feels fully realized. And this is especially impressive given the huge cast of characters the player is going to encounter in their travels throughout the land of Fódlan. The most key characters, however, belong to the chosen house the player joins early in the game. When I had to choose between the Black Eagles, Blue Lions, or Golden Deer, I had to go with the magic-wielding Black Eagles.

The bulk of the Black Eagles hail from the nobility of Fódlan, and as such, they have an air of confidence about them. Assured in their place in the world, most are eager to carve their path through it. Though few clash against this theme, giving the cast colorful chemistry. This chemistry is placed front and center in excellently crafted support scenes.

Support scenes are one of the key things that bind the twin aspects of Fire Emblem: Three Houses together. The game splits the player’s time between turn-based battles and doing various social activities around the academy where they help train their chosen house for battle. When characters either participate in social events together or fight side by side on the battlefield, they gain support from each other. Once enough support is obtained the player can watch a small cut scene that shows the two characters interacting.

These sequences help flesh out the characters’ personalities and backgrounds. While achieving these scenes also provide buffs for the units on the battlefield when they fight together. This merger of story and game mechanics makes everything important to every aspect of the game. What’s more, the writing in these scenes is great. The characters are each unique and entertaining. Seeing some grow into friendships, or even love, while others eternally bicker was always a treat.

The depth of the characters in Fire Emblem: Three Houses also adds to the stakes and drama of the deep battle systems.  With the classic rock-paper-scissors combat of previous Fire Emblem gone, Three Houses embrace a more nuanced approach to combat. With weapon types and combat abilities taking center stage, there is a lot more customization and choice for a player to make in determining which characters will be strong against which enemies. Add magic into the mix, along with various terrain effect, and movement options and you have a deeply fulfilling strategy game.

The game designers for Fire Emblem: Three Houses were very aware of just how much they packed into this game. The pacing of from the introduction to the game mechanics comes at a speed that gives the player time to acclimate, while not feeling drawn out. This helps further enhance the gameplay experience of Fire Emblem: Three Houses. And while winning victories on the battlefield is a reward in itself, getting to see the growth of the characters on the field is often an even bigger prize.

The combination, of battlefield experience, and classroom teachings in Fire Emblem: Three Houses give your chosen house the experience they need to grow and level through five tiers of combat classes. As weapons and magic are used and studied, the characters gain ranks in those particular subjects. Once certain ranks are achieved, and a certain level requirement met, a character can test to gain access to a particular class.

Fire Emblem

Initially, all characters begin simply as a noble or a commoner. From there they gain access to your standard classes like fighter, archer, or priest. With each new tier of classes, however, more unique options are introduced. From the brutal Warmaster to the Mortal Savant who blends swords and magic in a samurai-inspired design. Every class offers fantastic gameplay options and a  design that can only be described as a visual treat.

Gaining mastery in the classes of Fire Emblem: Three Houses unlocks a cornucopia of abilities as well. With many of these being permanent once earned. The customizations offered for unique team compositions and strategies are nearly endless. Especially since no character is locked into any given class or role. A player could conceivably end up with a team comprised entirely of mages if they wished. While such a strategy would have serious obstacles to it, that level of freedom is always a welcome addition to any gameplay experience.

The last piece of the Fire Emblem: Three Houses puzzle is the story. As with so many fantasy narratives, this story starts out simple enough. After saving the heads of the academy’s three houses, Byleth is offered a job as a professor there. As the story unfolds, plots and subterfuge eventually give way to an all-out war for the soul of Fódlan. The story attains an immense sense of gravity to it once it fully ramps up. As the houses are set against each other, characters you shared a meal with or sang with at the church choir take the field as mortal enemies. There were moments I truly didn’t want to have to finish off an enemy as they had so recently been a heartfelt companion. The narrative is further granted an excellent sense of realism due to the avoidance of the classic black and white approach to morality.

As the story of Fire Emblem: Three Houses unfolds the player will be forced to take sides in the conflict that comes to engulf Fódlan. This choice is not easy as an aura of “the ends justify the means” hovers over all parties. Even once my choice was set enough questionable events occurred that left me wondering if I had done the right thing. This willingness to embrace the reality of the struggle between attaining one’s goals and keeping to one’s principles is a masterstroke of storytelling and greatly separates the narrative of Fire Emblem: Three Houses from many other games in the genre.

The graphical presentation is also excellent. Even with the hardware limitations of the Nintendo Switch, Fire Emblem: Three Houses provides striking visuals. This is largely thanks to its gorgeous character designs. Every character has a look all their own. And I cannot recall a single character I flat out did not like the look of. These wonderful designs are highlighted on the battlefield. Once characters start acquiring better classes they take on those classes appearances on the field. Whether it the hulking fortress knight with massive armor and an imposing shield or the sleek design of the assassin; all the classes were clearly designed with care.

This care is also shown in the beautiful design of Garreg Mach Monastery, where so much of the game takes place. Every area presents its own feel that makes it stand out from the other areas of the monastery. But while they all provide their own feel it’s is sewn together in a manner that is seamless and natural. Moving from the stained glass light in the main cathedral, to the cozy library, or the mess hall filled with chatter and characters that all too quickly become friends, every piece of the monastery has its place and purpose. 

While as a whole I cannot praise the gaming achievement that is Fire Emblem: Three Houses enough, the game is tarnished by a few flaws. Most are small things like a sometimes difficult to interact with the mini-map or a threat indicator on the battlefield that, at certain angles, can become nearly invisible. But there are a couple slightly more significant setbacks. Perhaps the biggest is an almost unavoidable product of its greatest strength.

The level of customization that is granted to the player is born of the numerous systems at play within the many aspects of the game. With this many things going on it is all but inevitable some explanations will get lost in the weeds.  There was more than one aspect of the game I didn’t fully realize the function of till much later than I probably should have. While the fault might’ve been with me, I truly could not recall the game ever even mentioning this system was available. These pieces of the game were critical to my play experience it was frustrating to realize I’d been missing something.

When all is said and done though I found myself completely in love with the characters, world, and gameplay of Fire Emblem: Three Houses. It is a video game world I would rank up there with Mass Effect, Final Fantasy X, and Dragon Age. I whole heartily expect to be coming back to it whenever I am in between new releases. With so much customization and branching story to play though I’m not certain if I’ll ever experience all that Fire Emblem: Three Houses has to offer.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is available now on the Nintendo Switch.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses
  • 9.5/10
    Rating - 9.5/10
9.5/10

TL;DR

When all is said and done though I found myself completely in love with the characters, world, and gameplay of Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

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